Great Directors Made Little #1

Preston Sturges.

There’s also a still of him in Sturges on Sturges attending school in a classical Greek tunic (his mother’s idea). I always felt sorry for little Pres because of this, figuring that any kid turning up at school like that here in Scotland would have the crap knocked out of him, double-quick. But Sturges was in Bayreuth, where maybe they had different standards. Although he does recall being shoved off the stage of a ruined Roman temple by a homicidal fellow five-year-old.

Blame it all on Isadora Duncan. When asked if all Americans wore Greek tunics, she replied, “Oh no, some wear feathers!”

I knew about the Isadora Duncan connection, but it was only a few years ago that I realized that Mary Desti, Preston’s mom, was “scarlet woman” to the black magician Aleister Crowley. Little Preston and “the Great Beast” loathed each other, and I like the idea of a playlet exploring their rivalry. Something like HOME ALONE, but with more ritual masturbation.

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37 Responses to “Great Directors Made Little #1”

  1. What Sturges film was this kid in?

  2. Very cute kid, but also someone sophisticated, the haughty expression on its face shows a sensitivity towards being portrayed and great intelligence.

  3. Sturges had one of the most high-toned and bohemian upbringings of any Hollywood director and it seems to have had a beneficial impact on his style. I am looking forward to this series. The one I really want to see is, naturally, Hitchcock. Demonic gleam, or the cherubic face of a very, very good little boy?

  4. Sturges said his mother “dragged” him ‘through every goddam msuem in Europe!” And a good thing too. His bracing combination of erudition and street sass has NEVER been equalld. Was just semi-watching The Lady Eve last night while cooking dinner (as I know every line by heart.) You can savor the intonations for days. (Eespecially the grat Eric Blore declaring “I positively SWILL in his ale!” or the magnificent Eugene Pallette banging his plate and bellowing for breakfast.

    My friend Ruth Olay — a marvelous jazz and cabaret singer back in the 50’s (she appeared on the old “Steve Allen Show”) — worked as Sturges secretary in the last part of his U.S. period. She says he’d write great reams of dialogue and move them around the script as it suited his fancy — trying them out on one character or another. It was all good.

    One of the big reasons why hewas able to shoot three of the greatest films ever made in the same year — 1941 — was his restaurant “The Players Cluc.” It had the best food in town, and he’d serve it (with drinks) to his cast on the set. Therefore The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travelswere great big parties from start to finish.

    We shall not see his like again. We are not worthy.

    (Then as now.)

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Sturges was also a society host who sponsored emigre film-makers in America. He was friends with Renoir and Ophuls, and probably saw their movies in Europe. He helped Ophuls in Hollywood with his connections.

    As a film-maker what fascinates me in his films(which I’ve seen all save for four – Great Moment, Harold Diddlebock, Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend and that film he made in France that’s practically lost) is the rhythm and movement. It’s as distinctive a style as Altman or Cassavetes. Hawks, La Cava and Capra started the screwball comedy but Sturges took it to its plateau. My favourite of his films is the first one I saw, Sullivan’s Travels after that The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, Unfaithfully Yours, The Great McGinty, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

    There’s one interesting photograph in Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Hitchcock seated on his horse, its bridle held by his father. The easiest would be Renoir whose father painted him many times…as a little girl.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    Arthur S., YES to the rhythm remark! Look at this wonderful scene from Diddlebock:


    Cheers …

  7. “That film he made in France that’s practically lost” — The French They Are A Funny Race, AKA The Diaries of Major Thompson — is hopefully winging it’s way to me in a week or so. Very excited, even though most biographers say it’s terrible: “Almost willfully unfunny.” Obviously it didn’t help that his bilingual stars couldn’t make themselves understood in their second languages, and that Jack Buchanan was mortally ill with cancer of the spine.

    As a boy, we are told that Hitch was determined to be called Hitch. He punched another boy on the nose for calling him “Cocky.”

    Sturges’s upbringing seems to have inspired a love-hate relationship with high art, which he could appreciate but which he also had a resistance to. Which made him make films which were simultaneously deep and meaningful, but also destructive engines for tearing apart their own meanings. The most exciting of these is Sullivan’s Travels, a message movie made against message movies.

    Bashful Bend is very flawed but the opening scene is the ultimate comment on US gun culture. The Great Moment was mutilated but still shows huge ambition and has very strong scenes. Diddlebock is a little rushed at the end and the high-rise scene suffers from weak FX, as compared to Harold Lloyd’s heyday, but Harold himself handles the dialogue brilliantly and it’s a lot of fun.

    Rock the Boat — the kid IS Sturges, as a tot. So I guess the film he’s in is Sullivan’s Travels, where he cameos as a film director, but he’s a lot older…

  8. Well ”Sullivan’s Travels” is a message movie, it’s about class, which is a concern in Sturges’ films. It’s a fitting subject I guess for someone who revolted against his class and its snobbism, though remaining the exemplar of its best qualities. I am also thinking about that beautiful scene in ”Christmas in July” where Dick Powell, after thinking he’s won the prize uses the money he got to buy gifts for everyone in the neighbourhood and you get a real sense of working-class solidarity there. For all his much-mulled over “cynicism”(which isn’t actually cynical at all), not enough has been written of Sturges’ sincerity. And it comes over in moments like that or in ”Sullivan’s Travels” where you have as unsentimental a film about poverty as you’ll find in films.

    And there’s also a Brechtian side to him especially in ”The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” where we accept Norval as the father of Trudy’s children because he was faithful and devoted to her when others weren’t, that’s before ”The Caucasian Chalk Circle” where the surrogate non-biological parents are enshrined as the real parents of the child on account of their love. It’s an assault on ideas of patriarchy and manhood or whatnot and done with absolute sincerity and, well, love.

  9. I always thought Sturges’ cynicism was just political, and that came through in Hail The Conquering Hero. In what correspondence of his I’ve read, he seemed such a contradiction politically, it would not surprise me to find he never voted in an election.

  10. That Brecht-Sturges connection is a pip, Arthur!

  11. And it’s autobiographical too, since Sturges’ great childhood trauma was discovering that the beloved Solomon Sturges was not his biological father. And so he had to go to Europe with mother. He had zero interest in his biological dad, who only turned up when he became a success, but he remained devoted to Sol.

    The Great McGinty and I Married a Witch (which he helped write) both practically celebrate political corruption, something PS learned all about through his heavily connected first wife.

  12. Let me join David E in admiring Arthur’s Brecht/Sturges comparison. Fills me with longings to see a Sturges-directed “Cauciasian Chalk Circle.”

    I started watching “Remember the Night” recently. The moment that immediately spelled Sturges-as-scriptwriter, for me, was MacMurray comparing a lawyer to Marguerite in “Faust.”

    One throwaway line in “Bashful Blonde” that I loved, although little of it remains with me, was somebody-or-other talkng about “making a mountain out of a moleskin.”

  13. “As long as we don’t roll on the floor and give the butler hysterics we’ll be cooking with gas.”

  14. “Mountain out of a moleskin” was used in another film (I know that since I’d never seen BBfromBB – really it’s the only American Sturges I haven’t seen), but I can’t begin to remember which one. Oh, wait. It was a Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes! Sturges liked malapropisms, in Unfaithfully Yours he had Sir Alfred call Sweeney a “footpad” which is the exact opposite of what he means. Also wasn’t “Marguerite in Faust” a line Sturges gave Stanwyck in The Lady Eve?

    What I’m impressed with also is the egalitarianism in his stock company. Sometimes one will get an important part, but he almost always gives them distinctive lines even if it’s only a bit part. I’ve contended that he got most of his stock company from his earlier days as a screenwriter. Not all, mind you, but most of them. Even Paul Porcasi (bar owner in Hail The Conquering Hero), who showed up in only one Sturges film was in Imitation of Life.

  15. There is a Brechtian side to Sturges, as there is to Ford and even Michael Powell(the afterlife trial in AMOLAD plays like one of BB’s “lehrstruckes”, teaching plays), he isn’t a conscious Brechtian like Lang or Sirk. Samuel Fuller is also quite Brechtian(which Peter Wollen noted), but I am not sure if he’s a conscious Brechtian or not, he was an especially impressive autodidact so he might have been aware of Brecht by the time he began making his films, like making ”I Shot Jesse James” into a tragic love story among cowboys well before it became fashionable. Basically they have a feeling for dialectic, for contradictions but these guys might see it in terms of “let’s make this interesting” or “this’ll make a good story”.

    ”The Great McGinty” doesn’t get a lot of love because it’s not intended as a comedy but it’s an amazing political satire with a decidedly mature side. The romance between McGinty and his secretary is especially moving and the rivalry between Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff is incredible, one reason I love ”The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” is that it begins with these magnificent crooks who frame the story only to become at the end the “Deus-Ex-Machina” that fixes everything, it’s brilliant writing.

  16. He loved his eleventh-hour implausible solutions, Palm Beach Story featuring one of the most outrageous, straight out of The Comedy of Errors. (Shakespeare is as prominent as Brecht as a reference point.) The reason i didn’t warm to McGinty as much at first is that the filmmaker with the great gift for ridiculous Bokononist happy endings (they despairingly remind you that life’s not like this) chooses not to supply one. But I like that now.

    He talks very movingly about his rep company in Sturges on Sturges. Paramount would pressure him to use fresh faces, and he would protest that if these actors were kind enough to help him out when he was just starting, he owed them a duty of care to return the favour.

  17. Poor Sturges, he had too much integrity to last too long in the movie business and Howard Hughes was certainly no help. Still he didn’t waste his time and he left behind a career far outstripping that of far more prolific film-makers with lengthier careers.

    The most outrageously over-the-top happy ending is ”The Palm Beach Story”, ”Sullivan’s Travels” has a great ending(though I wish the editors found a better way to super-impose those laughing faces), ”The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” fully earns the ending, I don’t consider the endings of ”Christmas in July” and ”Unfaithfully Yours” as especially happy. Whereas ”The Lady Eve” is just right.

  18. “ridiculous Bokononist happy endings”

    I love this phrase. It also describes Aki Kaurismaki’s method over the last few years, which he describes as “I have to make films with happy endings because life is intolerably awful”.

    I think there are two scenes from Diddlebock that are among the best things he ever wrote, the first (obviously) the Jimmy Donlin first ever drink scene, but even better, I think, is this one:

    There is nothing in the world wrong with anything in this scene, and the leading actress is so luminously beautiful that she became Mrs Sturges.

  19. Christmas in July is happy in two separate, contradictory ways — he hangs onto his promotion despite not winning the contest, proving that dedication and virtue trump lucky breaks, and then he wins the contest anyway! Happy yet ironic, like the others.

    I don’t think Preston actually married Frances Ramsden — he’d been married so many times by then. He had a long-ish relationship with her and then married Sandy Sturges as soon as she was legal, and she became the love of his life.

  20. That’s one of the most beautifully written scenes in all of Sturges. And what makes it is his knowledge of the fact that Harold Lloyd could play it with such gut-wrenching sensitivity.

  21. I had a comment all written up, and David C. says it better and more pithily than me about Christmas In July. Now Unfaithfully Yours does have a more ambiguous happy ending, only Alfred’s ineptitude in acting on his impulses stopped him from attempting a monstrous act before he finds that his wife was guiltless.

    You know, for twenty years the only version of Diddlebock I ever saw was Mad Wednesday? One of Sturges’ biggest mistakes was thinking that Hughes wouldn’t pull rank on him and reedit his films, just as Buddy DeSylva did.

  22. It’s a happy ending because he is rewarded but it’s not a happy ending because at the end, Dick Powell and his girlfriend are sober and unaware of their success. Pay attention to the sinister cat on which the film ends. Hollywood happy endings are really tricky and coded. Like ”It’s A Wonderful Life!” has a convincing happy ending but Mr. Potter is still at large at the end and the plain truth is that there is nothing stopping Bedford Falls from turning into Pottersville. The final party scene is a final hurrah for a town and culture that will disappear. As is the end of ”Meet Me in St. Louis”, they don’t go to New York, they enjoy the fair but their childhood is ending and eventually the kids will grow up and leave the family anyway.

    In ”Unfaithfully Yours” the chief conflict in their relationship, him an older man, she a gorgeous younger woman remains unresolved. All he’s told is that she isn’t having an affair which means he doesn’t have to kill her, but paradoxically the jealousy and the murderous desire is what seems to help him raise his conducting to a new level. The romance between them is less sincere and real than other Sturges couples. It’s a tale of thwarted eroticism which it associates with murder and artistic creation, and as per Truffaut, a possible influence for Bunuel’s ”The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”. In retrospect the film seems to have taken after the Gesualdo di Venosa story, a madrigal singer who murdered his wife and her lover, exhibited their bodies outside his manor, was pardoned on account of his noble bearing and honor-killing laws in Italy, went on to make sweet beautiful music that eventually inspired Stravinsky in the 20th Century. Bertolucci plans to make a biopic.

  23. I kind of disagree about the black cat – remember, Sam says it depends what happens afterward. Jimmy and Betty are unaware of his really winning the Maxford house contest as they leave Baxter’s. So that cat may mean good luck, and Sturges is teasing us with the cat.

  24. A tease is still a tease. I am not saying the elevator is going to have an accident or something just that if Sturges wanted it to have uplift, he’d do something less jokey. The whole premise of that film is that “success” is based on luck and not hard work. When Luck is your Lady, it’s fine, when not, you’re doomed. Like Dick Powell’s jingle tune is ridiculous to begin with, certainly not something he deserves success for on the basis of merit, but then it’s probably no better than most jingles anyway and he’s a good sort in the end. The entire movie is a critique of such competitions exploiting people’s aspirations. That he wins despite getting a “comeuppance” means that the problem is left unsolved and unacknowledged as per the Sirk-Fassbinder school of narrative deconstruction.

    The black cat is a two-sided metaphor. People attach it significance of bad luck but in the film the hero has good luck, what it means is that luck has no logic and that on its whim, Dick Powell could be out on the streets any time at all.

  25. The unhappiest happy ending of them all IMO is The Wizard of Oz Judy is going on about being “In my room, in my bed” and speaks of everyone gathered round her as if they will always be there and nothing will ever change — and of course it will. For the WORSE!

    That’s why the final ringing chords of the score sound like a Death Knell. That’s why it always makes me cry.

  26. Salman Rushdie feels the same way as he wrote in his monograph for the BFI Classics, he finds it typical Hollywood conservatism (or rather the conservatism of the censorship, every studio boss in Hollywood knew that if they believed what they were selling they’d never cut loose out of their environment and become film producers in the first place) that expects audiences to prefer Kansas over Oz. That’s why ”The Thief of Bagdad” is my favourite fantasy of them, Sabu listens as the Prince jabbers on about all the fancy education and breeding that Sabu can now expect, stuff he didn’t need to save that imbecile’s life and he promptly high-tails it on a magic carpet, “for some fun and adventure at last” and literally flies over the rainbow. It’s a happy ending of a decidedly revolutionary flavour of the kind Twain alluded to at the end of “Huck Finn”, where Huck laments that he liked being on the river now, because now he’ll be educated and taught and “I’ve been there”. That’s a honest happy unhappy ending. But Thief of Bagdad is all sincerity.

  27. I guess that’s why the ending of Paper Moon is so uplifting, despite the bleakness of the landscape they drive off into and the uncertainty of the future.

    Apart from politics, the other thing Sturges was cynical about was Hollywood conventions like the happy ending. He spoke of “schmaltz, schmutz and schmertz” as necessary ingredients. I think he debunks or undercuts all his happy endings, unless they’re already self-debunking.

  28. <i.The Thief of Bagdad is my favoirte fantasy film for a zillion reasons — among them, the fact that Sabu was the only movie star who looked like me when I was his age.

    http://www.laweekly.com/2008-03-27/columns/off-white-like-me/

  29. Is it true that Sturges was a paedophile?

  30. No. Nobody said that.

  31. You’re confusing him with Catholic priests.

  32. ^ prejudice, eh?

  33. Um, pedophile? Sturges? As the oft-used old Usenet demand states: Evidence, please!

  34. I think RTB was responding to my mention of the fact that he married Sandy once she was of legal age. He did fall in love with her before then, but I think there’s still some way to go before you can throw the P word around.

  35. Quite some way to go, indeed. My trouble is that word gets thrown around way too loosely. In America, we do love labeling people.

  36. Well, except for the odd turn at the recent comments there, I have to say this was one fun thread – almost entirely because it brought back to the surface so many wonderful Sturges memories.

    What a fascinating director, and a fascinating man. As I draw up my “directors” pecking order, I hope there is no doubt of his place in the topmost tier.

  37. Having had such a stimulating response to, essentially, a baby picture, I now think I have to have a Sturges-themed Film Club event. The films are so rich and there’s so much to say, and two people who love the same film can see it in very different ways, so discussion seems particularly productive here.

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